CHARLOTTE — There has been very little to separate the Charlotte Checkers and the Chicago Wolves in the opening two games of the 2019 Calder Cup Finals. After an overtime loss on Saturday, the Checkers turned to Dustin Tokarski, he of the undefeated record, to gain a bit of an advantage in Sunday’s Game 2.
The on-loan goaltender from the New York Rangers organization did not disappoint, making 20 saves including some huge ones in the third period as the Checkers avenged Saturday’s loss with a 5-3 win in Game 2, evening the series at one game apiece as the series shifts to Chicago for Game 3 on Wednesday.
The start of the game followed a very similar script to Saturday’s Checkers loss in Game 1. Charlotte got on the board first on a shorthanded Nick Schilkey breakaway 3:50 into the game, sneaking behind the Wolves defense and taking a perfect lead pass from Zach Nastasiuk to fire the Checkers into the lead. But it only took 53 seconds for the Wolves to respond, seven seconds after the power play expired, when Keegan Kolesar outwaited Tokarski and reached the puck around the goalie’s left skate to tie the game right back.
Unlike Saturday, when both teams brought a physical edge from the opening puck drop, Game 2 was a much more physically subdued game - not to say there weren’t any big hits, but the all-out line brawls that were a featured on Saturday were nowhere to be found - that is, until the very end of the game, when a melee broke out with less than a second left that ended with Wolves alternate captain Curtis McKenzie repeatedly punching a helpless Steven Lorentz who was prone on the ice.
The Checkers improved their play from Game 1 in the second period, yet still lacked the zip that characterized their play in the regular season. Tokarski had little to do at his end, and the Checkers didn’t get much set up in front of Oscar Dansk for most of the period.
But then they hit paydirt on consecutive shots.
Nicolas Roy gave the Checkers the lead back again at 5:34 by tipping in a Haydn Fleury shot from the left circle. Fourteen seconds later, Stelio Mattheos undressed a Wolves defender and surprised Dansk to give the Checkers a 3-1 lead, just like they had in Game 1.
And just like in Game 1, the Wolves came back to tie it. Gage Quinney was responsible for both goals, the first coming just more than a minute after Mattheos’ goal on a tip from a no-angle shot from Tokarski’s right. Four minutes after that, on a power play, Quinney turned on the jets to blow past Roland McKeown and roof a backhander to tie the game as a discomforting sense of deja vu settled over Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Again, as it did on Saturday, a late-period goal proved pivotal. This one, much to the delight of the home crowd, gave the Checkers the lead again. Tomas Jurco’s one-timer off a Martin Necas pass was mostly stopped by Dansk, but trickled just over the goal line before the Wolves knocked it back out of the net. Video review confirmed the goal, and the Checkers entered the locker room with a 4-3 lead.
They kept it through the first portion of the third period in large part due to the play of Tokarski, who was stellar in denying a pair of Wolves shorthanded bids and then shutting the door on a stretch save less than a minute later with the Checkers killing a Trevor Carrick cross-checking penalty.
Tokarski had to rise to the occasion again with eight minutes left, when he robbed Daniel Carr o an partial breakaway. That seemed to spark the Checkers, who got their legs under them and nearly took a two-goal lead back when Necas forced a turnover in the slot and was denied by a strong pad save from Dansk, who was every bit Tokarski’s equal at the other end.
Wolves coach Rocky Thompson pulled Dansk with three minutes remaining, looking for a game-tying goal. It never came, and Andrew Poturalski put an exclamation point on the evening with the empty-net goal to seal the win with 59.6 seconds left. Tokarski improved to 4-0 in the playoffs, and the Checkers carry all the momentum into Wednesday’s Game 3 in Chicago.
They Said It
[What was the difference tonight from yesterday?] Not much, really. It was a close game, lots of chances, even again like last night. I thought the two teams battled extremely hard, it’s hot in the building, back to back games, so it was a little tough after overtime last night to get going. But once we got going in the second period, we got some big goals. We gave up the lead again, but stayed with it, and that’s what we talk about. They’re a great team.
It was big to get a lead. You always want a lead, then we were able to hold it. That was the key, I thought. We really tightened it up in the third. We didn’t give them any chances - it said they had four shots, I thought they had a few more than that - but we were much more disciplined defensively.
It’s hot, it’s hot in the building. You saw both goalies were tired last night, Ned was tired so we got [Tokarski] to fill in where he can. He’s a veteran leader, everybody plays well in front of him, he’s got a great record. If you look at analytics you’ll know that the percentages favor to start a guy in a back to back.
I couldn’t tell you what it was, but our guys were competing, their guys were competing, it’s a battle out there. We got a couple breaks. We scored shorthanded to get us going, another shorthanded which is great. Go back to that second period, we got a power play chance, and I think we had a bunch of chances on the power play and that just gave us more momentum.
[The PK is] huge. Obviously we won the Toronto series because of our penalty kill and because of four shorthanded in the last two or three games. To get another one tonight was huge, and to get us going with momentum, the penalty kill’s been good for us all year. That was one thing we came into this year and said we were going to improve. Last year we talked about scoring more goals and improving the power play, this year it was tightening up on our D and getting better on the PK.
[On McKenzie’s pummeling Lorentz late:] I used to have respect for a guy who played 100 games in the NHL, but he hit a defenseless player four or five times while he was on the ice. There’s a code in hockey, and he should know it. Everybody knows it. To hit a defenseless player that many times when he’s down, I hope that somebody takes care of what he’s supposed to do - from a league standpoint. I used to have respect for a guy who played 100 games in the NHL. That was really bush league.
I didn’t think last night was a bad game, so I wasn’t worried about a repeat. We played well, we just didn’t get a break, they scored three shots from the point. Our guys are focused. They want to be here. You know as a coach, you go in the locker room - it’s June, it’s 95 degrees in Charlotte, and they want to be in the locker room. They don’t want to be at the golf course or wherever. I know as a coach I don’t have to say much, I said a couple days ago, I know there’s times I have to steer the ship and there’s times the leaders do. The leaders are steering the ship when it comes to wanting to win.
[Jurco and Necas] speak the same language. Jurco has been through it before, he’s played close to 100 games or more in the NHL, and in my opinion he should be in the NHL. He’s proven that he’s a full time NHLer coming off an injury. They’ve formed a great chemistry. It’s loosened Marty up - too much pressure on Marty, and Marty’s been playing awesome. I thought he was outstanding tonight and last night. He’s really grown into himself as a hockey player, as an offensive player. And I don’t want to leave Brownie out, because Brownie does a lot of the grunt work for them. He competes, he wins faceoffs, he goes to the net. Those three guys have some great chemistry.
The matchups [Wednesday] will be different because he’s going to get the matchups. We might have to play around with our lines a little bit to see if we can get what we like. But we went into some tough buildings this year. There’s not an easy one in our division - Lehigh, Wilkes-Barre, even the Marlies. I expect it to be a tough building. It’s going to be loud. But tonight was awesome here. The last two nights, I couldn’t be more proud of Charlotte and our fans. They really came to support, they were loud. It was awesome. I’m very proud to be able to coach a team in Charlotte.
We’re probably going to go back to [Nedeljkovic] but we haven’t decided yet. Ned’s our goalie, he’s been our goalie all year, voted best goalie in the league. It was purely for rest.
[CC junior reporter Cassidy: What would be your goal song?] Oh, boy. Geez, I don’t know, that’s a great question. Something country, maybe? I couldn’t tell you. Maybe something from the 80s?
[CC junior reporter Jane Campbell: What’s your favorite part of hockey?] Winning!
[CC junior reporter McLean: Who’s your favorite player of all time?] Of all time? Um...it’s kind of hard to say. I have a bunch of guys I coached who are still playing in the NHL, and they’d probably be mad if I said one, but I will say...Tyler Seguin.
[CC junior reporter Millie: What was the hardest part of tonight’s game?] Winning! It’s hard! It’s hard to win. I said last night, we’re learning so much. Our guys are learning how to win a tight hockey game. Last night we didn’t, tonight we did, but it’s a great learning experience and our guys are gaining so much experience, it’s outstanding for them.
(Junior reporters, you say?)
Say hello to Cassidy, Jane Campbell, McLean and Millie. They sat in on the press conference tonight, asked some great questions (did you know that Mike Vellucci is a country music fan?) and, most importantly, held the official CC recorder during the media availability. Well done! pic.twitter.com/Uvjz3gBqvp— Canes Country (@CanesCountry) June 3, 2019
I think we were a little harder to play against tonight. We worked really hard. It’s a sport - one day you can do the same thing and it goes the other way than it did the other day. Today it went our way and we’re happy we got the win.
We had a good shift there. We almost scored a few seconds before that, I tried to look for Marty, and luckily we stayed on the puck. He found me out there, and luckily it went in. It was a relief. I’ve had many chances the last couple of games and couldn’t score, so that one felt really good.
We got a little quiet [when Chicago came back], everybody knew what we were playing for, but it took us a couple shifts and we were right back at it. We did a really good job staying in the game and I think that was the key.
It’s different than going there being down 2-0. That was a great win for us, really important, and we just have to win the next game and that will help us a lot.
We had just scored, so I tried to have a good shift after that. The D-man lost his stick, so I just tried to get around him, and once I got past him I just tried to find a lane to the net.
[Having the coach’s trust] means a lot. One of the things I wanted coming in was gaining the coach’s trust as quick as I can. These are big games, and they matter, so it means a lot to get the opportunity to play.
I think we just are a really deep team. The guys here want to win it bad. We’re a tight group, I could tell that coming in right away. Guys are willing to do anything for each other. Both our guys in net are fantastic, they have experience and speaking for the team, we trust them a lot every night. They’ve been huge for us.
The PK’s been unreal. There’s a lot of guys who that’s kind of their main job. They’ve relished the opportunity, and they’ve done their job. They get it done almost every time. I think [aggressiveness] is one of the staples on the PK. The guys are kind of used to that at this point. It’s so late in the year that guys know exactly what they’re doing, they know what we’re doing, so now it’s just who’s going to execute.
It’s a best of five now. We’re going on the road, but we’ve done well on the road this postseason. We just have to bear down. Every game’s huge, so it’s a best of five and hope we get the next one.